My fellow Americans: why aren’t more of you watching this show?
When I bring up Peaky Blinders, the Netflix Original show that isn’t really a Netflix original show (it’s a BBC Studios production distributed by BBC outside of the U.S.) I usually get one of three responses, in descending order of frequency:
- “What is that?”
- “Oh yeah, I think I saw something about it on Netflix.”
- A high pitched squealing reminiscent of a tea kettle.
The third one, of course, comes from other people who have seen the show already.
For those of you out there not even the tiniest bit familiar, the series has a pretty simple premise: Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy) returns home from World War I a decorated soldier along with his elder brother Arthur (Paul Anderson) and younger brother John (Joe Cole), determined to turn the family gang, the Peaky Blinders, into a much more profitable and (at least seemingly) legitimate business.
It’s about 10% historical basis and 90% creative license, but it adds up to 100% engaging television so I, for one, hardly mind. Furthermore, it’s a period piece about working class people set in industrialized areas put together with the impeccable styling and production values usually reserved for the glamor of court and royal/noble life (hello, The Crown), which is both wonderfully refreshing and arguably overdue.
(“But Boardwalk Empire,” you might say. Well, in the U.S. politician/businessman/crime boss is arguably the closest we get to royalty besides Grace Kelly and Meghan Markle—it’s an entirely different playing field.)
Look, I love a bit of upstairs-downstairs manorial intrigue as much as the next person, but even in England there has always been a world outside of palaces and manor houses, a vast and intriguing place where the majority of people live and work. Peaky Blinders is the kind of period piece that can still appeal to people who would rather sit through their fingernails being removed one by one than an episode of Downton Abbey (but would also appeal to pro-Downton Abbey folks… so long as they don’t mind a few extra servings of violence and coarse language).
As I have been outside of the U.S. since season 4 (finally) premiered on Netflix a few weeks ago, I am forced to guess, but assuming the absence of a drastic change of attitude from the first three seasons, it was dropped with little to no fanfare—a’s a real shame, because the show has a whole lot going for it.
So in honor of the recently released season 4 (again, recently released if you’re in the U.S.), here are 4 reasons why Peaky Blinders should be the subject of your next Netflix binge session (and with each season clocking in at around a 6 hour start-to-finish runtime, it’s pre-portioned into ideal binge-length chunks).
Look, I am a huge fan of Cillian Murphy. I have found ways of sneaking him into my FSR articles the way a certain subgenre of cook books stealthy introduce spinach into child-friendly food items—I’ve managed to mention him in seven (now eight) articles in the past year, and included him in the featured image of no less than three.
Why? First of all, he’s a damn good actor. Second, he either a) looks terrifying or b) is terrifyingly handsome, depending on who you ask, which I for one find fascinating. Finally, we both have Irish names that start off with a hard Gaelic “C” followed by an “i” that Americans consistently have the compulsive desire to pronounce like an “S,” so I feel a great deal of solidarity.
Anyway, all of this is to say that I have watched everything that Cillian Murphy has done that is available on DVD, BluRay, and/or streaming, including that one three-part documentary on the Atlantic Ocean that he narrated, so I feel very confident in saying that Thomas Shelby is his best performance, if only because he has now had four seasons of good-to-great writing to inhabit and develop this fascinatingly complex anti-hero.
A simultaneously lovable, loath-able, PTSD-ridden incredibly intelligent gangster-slash-war-hero-turned-businessman-turned-something-else-but-I-don’t-want-to-spoil-it-for-you, Tommy is one of the greatest characters on TV right now. And he’s surrounded by like company. There’s not a shrinking violet to be found on the show. Sam Neill’s increasingly devious Inspector Campbell provides such a wonderful foil to Murphy’s Tommy Shelby that you hardly mind that you will never be able to look at Jurassic Park the same way again. Polly Gray (Helen McCrory), Tommy’s aunt who ran the family “business” while the Shelby brothers were fighting in the war and refuses to be relegated back to the domestic sphere when they return, is kind of like a Cersei Lannister you don’t want to die in a sea of fire. Because she is a queen, if not technically by title then by disposition, and decidedly a mama bear, just as likely to throw a wrench into our protagonist’s plans as she is to be cooperative.
Especially since Peaky Blinders is the kind of show where characters do die, replenishment is necessary, and thus far newcomers have managed to consistently be just as individual and intriguing as the original line-up. Notable season 4 additions include Mafioso Luca Changretta (Adrien Brody), who at one point menacingly force-feeds one of his henchmen a scone (what else is a gangster supposed to do in Stratford-upon-Avon?) and Aidan Gillen as Aberama Gold, a character who sports a completely different aesthetic but a wholly familiar vibe—that is, powerful, clever, and entirely untrustworthy, for anyone out there already missing Littlefinger and his antics. Petyr Baelish may be gone, but we still have Aidan Gillen, and he remains so wonderfully good at playing characters who are so wonderfully bad.
And for those of you who wish you could have seen more of Tom Hardy in Dunkirk, or that he had more lines, there is the delightfully motor-mouthed Alfie Solomon, who uses circumlocution as a (quite successful) negotiation tactic. The exchanges that occur between him and Tommy through the seasons prove that the on-screen pairing of Hardy and Cillian Murphy ages like fine wine.
When it comes to production value, Peaky Blinders definitely deserves to be placed under the “peak TV” banner. From framing to editing to shot composition, Peaky Blinders is a beautiful show, and it’s put clear budgeting increases in successive seasons to spectacularly good use, from capturing the hedonistic excess of filthy rich Russian nobles driven from their home country and left with nothing but spare time on their hands to various spectacularly staged combat sequences. And through it all, the show hasn’t shied away from going more experimental at times, especially when trying to capture Tommy in the midst of extreme physical or psychological stress—recovering from a violent attack, liquor, and grief-induced hallucinations, the works.
Here are just a few perfect shots from season 4:
Except for episodes 4 and 5 of season 1, which list Stephen Russell and Toby Finlay as co-writers (respectively), all of the Peaky Blinders writing credits go to creator Steven Knight. Admittedly, Knight’s cinematic output in recent years has generally ranged from meh to just okay to dull (2016’s Allied, 2013’s Closed Circuit) with 2014’s Locke being a notable outlier. But with four seasons under its belt, Peaky Blinders has some of the most consistent writing in terms of quality and pacing (especially after the first half of season one) that I have seen from a drama show.
Look, I am a very loyal fan when it comes to just about everything but television. When it comes to television there are maybe three or four long-running series that I have watched all the way through to the very end. I have a relatively low threshold for contrived plot devices and other things of that nature, and once a season of a show hits that threshold for me I rarely ever tune back in. I really don’t care if it supposedly picks up again a season later, that show is now dead to me. On average, I tend to tap out after two to three seasons. Peaky Blinders has now had four seasons and I am more enamored than ever.
Frequently, a show with a successful first season will receive a second with a larger budget, and as long as it continues to succeed, this cycle tends to continue. This, combined with a desire to keep things interesting for viewers while still being true to whatever attracted existing fans, tends to result in a “like last time, only bigger and better” approach that often begins to falsely equate “bigger” and “better.” Unfortunately, “too big to fail” is as problematic an approach to storytelling as it is to economics. It usually results in narratives I would collectively describe as “too unwieldy to function.”
Peaky Blinders has so far managed to follow the “go bigger” approach—season 2 expands the reach of the Shelby brothers to London, season 3 goes international by adding Russians, and season 4 transatlantic by bringing in the American Mafia—with incredible aplomb.
Of course, like any show Peaky Blinders has highs and lows, but even when it does hit a relative low, the show is, as mentioned earlier, incredibly pretty to look at. For example, when season 3 more or less inevitably succumbs to one of my least favorite plot devices—which I won’t name to avoid spoilers—it does so in a scene so beautifully staged that, even in my irritation, I took a screenshot in order to take a few moments to fully appreciate the composition.
The use of modern rock and/or pop music in period pieces has become something of a trend in the 21st century, with varied results (A Knight’s Tale, Marie Antoinette (2006), The Great Gatsby (2013)). Generally I have been more “nay” than “yay” on the trend, but Peaky Blinders has consistently pulled it off impeccably well for four seasons now. Perhaps it’s because their go-to musician is Nick Cave—the theme song is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand”—and that guy goes with quality visual storytelling like peanut butter goes with jelly. Seriously. From The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to the making-of documentary One More Time With Feeling to, of course, Peaky Blinders, he’s like a musical fairy godfather of the moving image.
Other artists featured on the show include “The White Stripes,” Tom Waits, Jack White, Johnny Cash, PJ Harvey, Arctic Monkeys, The Kills, Radiohead, and Queens of the Stone Age.
David Bowie was such a big fan of the show he sent Cillian Murphy a picture of himself dressed up as a Peaky Blinders gang member—razor-bladed cap and all—and without prompting gave the show his blessing to use his music (season 3, the first released after Bowie’s death, unsurprisingly features a montage set to “Lazarus”).
So what are you waiting for? All four seasons are right there on Netflix. Grab a flat cap, overcoat, and a tumbler of gin, and get started.
(And if someone could start actually distilling gin under this name, that would be fantastic…)